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Friday, June 2, 2017

Fritz Wiessner’s Old Climbing Routes Still Hard

Matt Shove at the top of Ragged Mountain in Connecticut. Photo by Phil Brown.

The legendary Fritz Wiessner established more than a dozen rock-climbing routes in the Adirondacks, according to the authors of Adirondack Rock. I’ve written about a few of the better ones, including Empress on Chapel Pond Slab, Wiessner Route on Upper Washbowl Cliff, and Old Route on Rooster Comb Mountain.

One reason I’m drawn to Wiessner routes is their historical interest. Arguably, Wiessner was the strongest rock climber in the United States during the 1930s. Indeed, the authors of Yankee Rock and Ice suggest that the German immigrant “was so far ahead of what others were willing to try that he did not significantly improve the general standard.” In other words, few of his contemporaries could repeat his harder routes.

That said, Wiessner’s routes are considered easy or moderately difficult today. Advances in equipment and techniques have enabled climbers to get up routes that would have been impossible in his era. He climbed with a hemp rope tied around his waist, wearing mountain boots or rope-soled shoes, pounding in an occasional piton to protect against a fall. Modern climbers have stretchy nylon rope (not liable to break), sticky-rubber slippers, fancy chocks and cams, and comfortable harnesses.

The Yosemite Decimal System scale of difficulty now ranges from 5.0 (easy) all the way to 5.15 (nearly impossible). Although the scale was invented after Wiessner’s heyday, his routes have been graded retroactively. They top out at 5.8 or so.

Thus, as a novice who took up climbing late in life, I was drawn to Wiessner’s classics also because they were within my ability. However, I had not tried some his hardest routes until last weekend, when I traveled to Ragged Mountain in Connecticut.

Ragged Mountain is a long outcrop of trap rock about a hundred feet high, formed by lava flows eons ago. Though surrounded by residential neighborhoods, most of the mountain lies within a preserve owned by a nonprofit foundation and is open to the public. It is the state’s most popular climbing area.

Matt Shove on Knight’s Move at Ragged Mountain. Photo by Phil Brown.

I hired Matt Shove of Ragged Mountain Guides to lead me up several of the old classics. We started on the Wiessner Slab, one of the easiest and oldest routes on Ragged, first climbed by Wiessner in 1933. Rated 5.3, it has an abundance of holds and can be climbed in a variety of ways.

The Wiessner Slab ends at a big ledge halfway up the cliff. From there, we reached the top by a fun route called Knight’s Move that traverses sideways across the face, then goes straight up. The  origin of Knight’s Move (5.4) is unknown, but it’s thought to be an old route.

After rappelling to the base of the cliff, we did Ancient Way, a route put up in 1935 by some of Wiessner’s climbing partners, including Betty Woolsey, one of the few female climbers of that era. Rated 5.4, it follows a wide crack. In his Rock Climbing Connecticut, David Fasulo calls it “a natural line and one of the best of its grade.” Just as memorable as the climb was our approach through a cool cave-like feature.

After these warm-ups (the routes are harder than the grades indicate), we turned our attention to four Wiessner classics: in order, Wet Wall, Vector, Main Street, and Wiessner Crack.

Wiessner climbed Wet Wall (5.6) in 1934 or 1935. Not surprisingly, the bottom section is often wet, and so it was on this day. The wetness spiced up the crux, or hardest part of the route. Matt climbed the crux with aplomb. I hesitated while working out the moves but managed to get through it fine. The rest of the route was straightforward.

After a snack, we tackled Vector, perhaps the most celebrated of the Wiessner routes at Ragged. He established the route in 1935 with Roger Whitney. Laura and Guy Waterman, the authors of Yankee Rock and Ice, rank Vector as the Northeast’s boldest and hardest climb of the 1930s. Indeed, it may have been the first 5.8 in the country. The crux comes at a wide crack at a small overhang, about three-quarters of the way up the cliff.

Phil Brown on Vector.

“Fritz went up twice to try it but each time turned back, reluctant to commit himself to such a strenuous and unprotected sequence of moves,” the Watermans write. “On the third occasion he made the commitment and completed what probably remained the hardest single lead in the country for almost twenty years.”

Matt’s clients seldom ask to do Vector, so he climbs it only once a year or so. He was excited to have a chance to do it with me. Vector begins at a corner near a 15-foot-tall pinnacle. You can either climb the corner from the ground or climb the pinnacle and then step over to the main face. Matt chose the second option, which was an enjoyable way to start.

Above the pinnacle, Matt followed the corner effortlessly to the crux. I leaned my head backward to watch as he surmounted the overhang, using small footholds on either side of the crack. He made it look easy. I can do this, I thought.

After Matt put me on belay, I scrambled up the edge of the pinnacle, moved to the main face, and began ascending the crack. I didn’t have any trouble at first, but when I reached the crux, the route steepened and the holds shrank. I tried stuffing my hands in the crack and pulling myself up, but I was out of balance and couldn’t find a toehold to take the weight off my arms. After several feckless attempts at muscling upward, my arms were exhausted. I admitted defeat and rested on the rope.

Eventually, I did thrash up the rest of the crack, albeit with a few more rests. Arriving on top of the cliff, I felt spent, dispirited, and a renewed respect for Fritz Wiessner. Legend has it that he climbed Vector with just a single piton to protect him in event of a fall.

Matt suggested another Wiessner route, Main Street (5.6), as a recovery climb. It was just what I needed. We did the route in two pitches, ascending a wide crack to a good ledge, then finishing by going up a short chimney.

I should have called it a day, but I asked if we could do one more climb. At my suggestion, we did the Wiessner Slab and then continued to the clifftop via the Wiessner Crack. Fritz did this route in 1934. It goes up a steep corner, and like Vector, it can be strenuous, especially for a climber who hasn’t mastered the arts of crack climbing and stemming. To make a long story short, I exhausted my arm muscles again and had to rest on the rope.

That night, I noted that Rock Climbing Connecticut rates Wiessner Crack as 5.8+. In theory, that means it’s even harder than Vector. However, an earlier guidebook, Hooked on Ragged by Ken Nichols, rates it as 5.8-, indicating it’s a bit easier than Vector. All that tells you is that Yosemite ratings are somewhat subjective. What we know for sure is that Fritz Wiessner was one hell of a climber.

Incidentally, Wiessner also put up a 5.8+ route in the Adirondacks near the summit of Noonmark Mountain. Adirondack Rock says the Wiessner Route, as it’s called, probably was done in the 1930s or 1940s. The authors describe the 90-foot crack as “an early testpiece that still challenges climbers today. This route is Wiessner’s most difficult Adirondack climb and arguably one of the best.”

Wiessner had climbed in the Adirondacks in the early thirties. Is it possible that he put up the route on Noonmark before Vector? If so, the Adirondacks could have laid claim to one of the hardest routes in the country, if not the hardest. Then again, the first two Adirondack rock-climbing guidebooks rated Wiessner Route as only 5.7. A later book, Climbing in the Adirondacks by Don Mellor (the immediate predecessor to Adirondack Rock), upped the rating to 5.8. Of Wiessner Route, Mellor writes that it “stood for many years as one of the hardest cracks upstate.” It’s on my bucket list. As is a return to Vector.

Matt Shove coils the rope on top of Ragged Mountain’s cliffs. Photo by Phil Brown.

Phil Brown

Phil Brown has been editing the Adirondack Explorer since 1999. When he isn't at his desk, he's usually out hiking, paddling, skiing, or doing something else important. You can follow his adventures and his musings on the Adirondacks in the Explorer and on this blog.

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